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  Mapping Mars - Science, Imagination, and The Birth of a World by Oliver Morton

commentary by Duane Dunkerson

In this book the author, Oliver Morton, does not present an inch by inch accounting of the NASA missions to Mars. The foot ruler of progression could have been applied to development, launch, interplanetary journey, orbit, and landing on Mars. Mr. Morton's scale is ultra NASA to include science fiction, art, politics, and the appreciation of human places.

It is the grand age for Earth's robots. One of them, Pathfinder, was the first of humanity's creations to travel on its own across the sands of Mars. This has been the only Mars we have seen, via our robotic envoys. These complex tools make Mars more inspected and accessible, and in some cases, more known than some Earthly areas.

As Mr. Morton tells us, the known Earthly features have been surveyed and touched. Mars is not yet surveyed and hardly touched. In 1969 the control net of mathematics used to represent points of Martian surface science was made up of 115 points. In 1993 the control net was of 36,397 points. Not without failure did this increase in points come about - "Mariner 3 died with its solar panels pinned to its side by the wrapping in which it had been launched in 1964; Mariner 8 fell into the Atlantic in 1971; Mars Observer exploded as it was trying to go into orbit around Mars in 1993; Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the atmosphere in 1999; Mars Polar Lander made its mistake just forty yards up a few months later." These failures had been sent to clarify the Martian features already seen by Earth-bound telescopic astronomers. The Hourglass Sea had been the first feature of Mars to become a landmark.

The successful flights to Mars were to make known to us the largest volcano by volume in the Solar System - Alba Patera. The Martian skies were a yellow brown as Mr. Morton notes, and not that fake pink shown over the lowest planetary feature, the Hellas Planitia Basin. With poles of carbon dioxide and water, and a climate at the mercy of precession and obliquity, this smallish planet with individual features puts to shame Earthly comparison by means of age and size. A dry, dusty desert in general pervades the specifics of 94 different rock units, and the cratered areas such that with the more craters, the older the terrain.

A third of the surface is lowered like moved by an elevator, writes Mr. Morton. Plains have been found to be remarkably flat, perhaps the flattest surfaces in all of the Solar System. Mars has a big asymmetric mass, the Tharsis bulge, centered on the equator. Layers and layers of surface are seen. These appear to be sedimentary and, thus, like oceans. Oceans of water? Channels as outflow, fretted, and run-off could be sourced by rivers. Of water? Is that water still there, in hidden underground volumes as a planet-wide aquifer? Valley networks are found in only the oldest Martian land.

Mr. Morton reports that episodic oceans with as an episodic a shoreline have been conjectured. Not ocean-like are seeps and gullies that have been found. But this gully water would be too cold. Perhaps water ice could trap carbon dioxide gas molecules to form gas hydrates called clathrates. A large planetary role for carbon dioxide has always been the great challenge to the Martian watery world.

A large consideration must be given the basic Martian geography of a southern hemisphere plastered by very frequent craters in the highlands. In the northern hemisphere are smoother and lower plains. Light and dark areas owe their contrast to dust blown by high velocity winds.

As Mr. Morton puts it, these basics were airbrushed into vision in Arizona where reside the highest per capita proportion of incipient Martians on Earth. By using compressed nitrogen, the airbrush personnel constructed technical documents to better represent the surface at more than motel art standards. The digital data, to which algorithms were applied, received the airbrush after Cronaflex overlaid the photomosiacs that the spacecraft contributed. The results have a presence.

The spacecraft were exemplified by Mariner 9 that was the first American craft to orbit another planet, the first to send back a deluge of data, the first to image more than strips of Mars, and the first to see dramatic weather changes. Later and cheaper spacecraft used aerobraking at a level of a force such as to lift a cheeseburger to finally slowly get into Martian orbit. Extraordinary but confusing surface details were found. Vast tracts of ancient time as surface entities sat on the surface. Details down to boulder size were seen. It was bafflingly different from the same scenes already found from a viewpoint confined by orbital parameters. Radio telescopes based on Earth offered competing scale down to 4 inches. Divergent views came about. More rovers and landers were to come. Already in 2004 there has been success or failure. More attempts are planned for 2007, 2009, and 2011.

Mr. Morton relates that all this effort goes to make of Mars a place. A Mars of places. None of the science can endure unless we have a presence there. This presence could be more than the airbrushed interpretative feature mapping. There are no Martian histories, no Martian legends. Human stuff. Seasons have been imagined because reflective light from Mars was measured in certain ways and put through cognitive filters such that civilizations and science fiction visions became pseudo-real. A point of light was telescopically magnified into a world, like ours, a world of experience, but then largely empty.

We populated it with a space machine and intelligence, the once inaccessible "man from Mars", a perennial favorite, emerged. These Martians make for a world, a place, since it could have minds. A place is gotten to, occupied, known, left - for a purpose. No minds, no life-potential, and then not enough purpose. Otherwise we are in the exhilarating and despondent state of being unique. Only on Earth. Only us.

We categorize Mars. Using spacecraft pictures and not knowing, for a time, at what or where we are looking, because we don't know where, not close enough, the spacecraft might be. The Mariner 9's USGS map combined truth and dense artistry. The Mars Observer Laser Altimeter map was not realistic though impressive. There were copious data in different colors for different terrain using computer filter enhancement and computer shading.

The data provided some of the science fiction authors with source material. Heinlein used Lowell's maps from the heyday of the Martian canal frenzy. Clarke used Antoniadi's maps that preceded or were contemporary with Lowell's. Robinson used the USGS maps. Robinson, as others, found political purpose in Martian independence, where as for many others, star date is always 1776 (as Mr. Morton has it) and terraforming coined as a term in the 1940s, is a usual practice. To sometimes illustrate science fiction about Mars, people were put into the landscape so they denote travel, giving an attempted push to a sense of scale for the huge Martian features. The Martian vastness not always abrupt was being pushed to have change in shape over great distance at nearly imperceptible rates.

The push was to place, from local to Martian universal. Maps as summaries without greater detail and so lacking in coordinates were pushed to extension. One needs a lasting or lengthy experience of rituals and routines for a sense of place. Martian coordinates pushed through cyberspace are the closest we have gotten yet to a Martian familiarity. Our familiar Martian zones are ellipses of uncertainty within which is to be found the lander. Orbital eyes have something always hidden from them. What could be touched by instrumentation, so Mr. Morton writes, is an invisible third of 1% of 1% of 1% of the landing ellipse.

Our familiarity with Mars is increased by representations of it that look like Arizona and thought of as being of the historical American West. It is an American West where one could meet representatives of the politics of the Chinese space program. Perhaps it will be Mars as the new Antarctica. A western theater of Chinese occupied Antarctica could mean less scope for plans about modifications to be applied to Mars - putting an asteroid into the surface, using the terrain's highs and lows to transport material, mirrors in Martian orbit to warm the planet, adding dust to poles to also warm the planet, and nuking the nitrates to get nitrogen and some oxygen too.

Mr. Morton relates well the material and mental mapping of Mars as shown from the above topics he presented. Theories of Mars reflect trends on Earth. So at the end of it all, space travel holds up distant mirrors? Mars now changes as the Earth-bound image modulates. Most want-to-be Martians fervently want Mars to be more than a province of Earth.










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by Duane Dunkerson

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